For anyone living in the Netherlands, the national tradition of Sinterklaas (or St. Nicholas) has become a familiar topic of controversy. Celebrated annually, a key part of the children’s holiday is the old saint’s problematic sidekick: Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete), a character that’s instantly recognizable by its black face paint, curly black wig, red lipstick and golden earrings. And despite more and more people speaking out against the blackface caricature and calling for its abolition—including the United Nations—Zwarte Piet’s appearance remains largely unchanged. Well, so much for the bad news…
Today, more than 200 bright minds, from writers and politicians to actors, models and musicians, are launching a large-scale social media protest. Invited by Glamcult regular Zoë Bab and photographed by Jasper Abels, all participants were captured in an unequivocal protest tee that reads: “Zwarte Piet is racism[e]”. Not only does the clear-cut campaign target Zwarte Piet; more than anything, it counters the underlying racism that’s becoming painfully visible through the blackface caricature and the national debate it evokes. Inspired by the cause, which activists such as Raul Balai, Jerry Afriyie and Quinsy Gario have been tirelessly advancing over the past years, Glamcult caught up with Zoë.
With this powerful photo series, you’re taking an unequivocal stance against Zwarte Piet—and as such, blackface and racism in general. How/why was this particular protest born?
Every year around November, the discussion kicks off again. Every year I was looking at Dutch people hating on each other and not talking about the real, deep issues around the subject of racism. I was only thinking about it and talking about it but, I will honestly say, I did nothing in my power… I didn’t take any action and responsibility to make a change for now and the future. This November, a group of creative friends came together and we made a plan to to reach out to all of you with an alternative approach: a photo campaign to show that we are all in this together and we want to reach out to everyone with respect and fairness.
Who are the people featured in the series? What do they have in common? And what’s the most important thing you’ve taken away from meeting all of them?
Oh my goodness, I wish all of your readers could have been in my production team for one day so you’d have met these wonderful and brave people. From actresses to lawyers, from parents to musicians, from corporate businessmen to writers, from artists to scientists—all with these characteristics called compassion and empathy. Meeting all these faces of evolution gave me an inexhaustible drive and an invisible force to keep fighting for what’s right. A life lesson that my mum taught me as a little rug rat and what we all have to teach each other.
The public debate on Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, both online and offline, is a very heated one. What advice would you give to those who perhaps don’t dare to speak up or haven’t spoken up so far?
First of all: start talking with your inner circle of friends and family. If you can’t talk to them, you can always contact a few very reliable organizations to get in touch with people who will welcome you with open arms to answer all your questions, give you a safe space to talk and debate, and educate you. Because believe me, a little education is going to give you a lot of answers. We are grateful for organizations like Nederland Wordt Beter and the work of people like Sylvana Simons, whose efforts have laid the foundations for the activism that we can take part in today.
Considering how fast images travel on social media, where do you hope these photos will end up?
“Civilizations can only be understood by those who are civilized.” (Alfred North Whitehead)
With such a wide reach, the series will undoubtedly spread the word and—hopefully—spark change. What if people want to take further action? What can they do and where can they go?
People can reach out to organizations like Nederland Wordt Beter, read a book such as Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence or watch a documentary like Wit is ook een kleur by Sunny Bergman. And if you want to, you can always send me an e-mail!